Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

April 22, 2009

“Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton’s house to-night.”

In The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes make the unprecedented decision to unlawfully enter the home of a private citizen in order to better serve his client. There were some other cases when Holmes burgled a home or business but always with at least a modicum of authorization such that had he been caught, it is unlikely he would have been prosecuted. In the case of Milverton, Holmes openly admits to Watson the illegality of his proposed actions:

“We have shared this same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell.”

In any event, Holmes has decided to step outside of the law, Watson has coerced Holmes into taking him along, and they set out to commit the crime. While burgling the home, they discover that Milverton is awake when intelligence indicated he would be asleep.

As it turns out, Milverton has an appointment with a client who has promised to sell him some compromising letters. The client arrives one-half hour late and is not whom she told Milverton she was; she is a woman Milverton ruined because she failed to pay the ransom for some compromising letters Milverton possesed.  Milverton released the letters to her husband who, as a result of a broken heart, died.

After a brief exchange, she pulls a pistol and kills Milverton. Watson and Holmes are secreted behind a curtain and witnessed the murder. After Milverton is dead and the assailant has fled, Holmes quickly retrieves the letter that compromised his client (as well as all other letters Milverson had), hurls them into the fire, and he and Watson flee the scene.

There were five rounds fired and the alarm was quickly raised:

“I could not have believed that an alarm could have spread so swiftly. Looking back, the huge house was one blaze of light. The front door was open, and figures were rushing down the drive. The whole garden was alive with people, and one fellow raised a view-halloa as we emerged from the veranda and followed hard at our heels. Holmes seemed to know the grounds perfectly, and he threaded his way swiftly among a plantation of small trees, I close at his heels, and our foremost pursuer panting behind us. It was a six-foot wall which barred our path, but he sprang to the top and over. As I did the same I felt the hand of the man behind me grab at my ankle, but I kicked myself free and scrambled over a grass-strewn coping.”

Forgetting for the moment that these two middle aged men easily negotiate a six-foot fence, I wonder what happened to the woman who killed Milverton? Where did she go? I will allow that Holmes and Watson spent some additional time in Milverton’s study while Holmes (without Watson’s help) made multiple trips from the safe to the fireplace but, according to Watson’s narrative, the servants were almost instantly on the scene. In fact, they were banging on the locked office door even as Holmes was dumping the material from the safe into the fire.

So where did she go? We know she exited the house because Watson felt the outside air enter the room:

“She looked again, but there was no sound or movement. I heard a sharp rustle, the night air blew into the heated room, and the avenger was gone.”

But how could she have eluded the staff when they were apparently (almost) immediately at the door? And did she too scale the six-foot wall?

Watson was actually caught by the heel as he went over the fence so clearly people were about, why would they not have seen the woman?

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